How you feel about free speech probably depends on what you think is free speech.

Once again I find myself observing arguments about who has a right to say what and where and how. Who has a right to show what pictures, wear what t-shirts, and hold up what signs.

Most people who argue “what they are doing is NOT free speech!” are motivated primarily by the fact that they disagree with what is being said. Sometimes they take it a step further and label it “hate speech.” Which sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. But as Americans we cannot agree on what is hate speech or what is free speech.

Is free speech the right to share your ideas? Yes, if it is standing on a street corner with a sign? Yes, if it is standing on a street corner screaming at the person with the sign?

Is free speech the right to inconvenience others? Yes, if they have to walk around you standing on a street corner with your sign? Yes, if they have to drive around you standing in the street with your sign?

Is free speech the right to share your ideas? Yes, if you have a crowd of people who has paid to hear them? Yes if one person in that crowd interrupts your speech with their own?

Is free speech the right to call for the removal of political figures? Yes, if you say they need to be voted out of office? Yes if you say they need to be run out of your community?

Is free speech the right to call people names? Yes, if that person is a political figure? Yes, if that person is walking into a church or planned parenthood clinic? Yes, so long as you believe it is true? Yes, if those names are derogatory cultural, racial, or ethnic terms?

Is it free speech to wear a t-shirt claiming your views? It is free speech to be told you aren’t allowed somewhere because of your t-shirt?

Is it hate speech to stand on a college campus and call women wearing shorts “sluts”? Is it hate speech to stand on a college campus and call men wearing shorts “sluts”?

Is it hate speech to say that your cultural or ethnic identity has some element worth preserving and honoring? Is it hate speech if others don’t believe you have a “real” cultural or ethnic identity?

Is it hate speech to stand on a street corner with a sign that reads “You are an idiot”? Is it hate speech to yell “you are an idiot” at people walking past? Is it hate speech to stand up in an auditorium and yell at a speaker “you are an idiot”? Is it hate speech to run up to the speaker, jump on stage, a yell in their face “YOU ARE AN IDIOT”?

All too often, we want to believe in free speech as a stand alone idea. And many well intended individuals will argue about it as if it is an independent concept. There is always context involved. Free speech is complicated. And when we hear in the news that someone’s “free speech” was violated, it is often a headline without context. Often shared and promoted by those who share the ideology of the person claiming to be the victim of injustice to provoke a knee jerk reaction.

Don’t be a knee jerker. Get the whole context.
P.S. I couldn’t find a way to work this in but it also reminds me of this joke. A Scotsman comes to the U.S. for college. His mom calls and asks how he is doing with the Americans, especially in the dorms. He says “My neighbor on the right bangs on the wall all night and the one on the left screams all night.” The mom immediately says “that’s awful, how do you deal with it?” He says “I just keep playing my bagpipes and ignoring them.”

 

 

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Why statues matter

Statues are not history. Rarely is a statue erected at the moment that something historic happens. (For instance, the first statues of George Washington were over 40 years after his death.) This is because we need time and distance to see what is historic. And also because statues are not history. Statues are looking back through history, through the lens of our moment, and cherry-picking someone we think exemplifies something worth looking up to – literally. Statues are public civics lessons.

So statues matter less because of who they are and more because of why they were made. One of my favorite statues is one you have probably never seen and it is someone you probably don’t know. In the Indiana State House, there is a statue of Colonel Richard Owen. He was a geologist and university professor who served in the Mexican American War and the Union Army in the Civil War. The statue though….was commission in 1913, by Confederates who had been in a prison camp run by Owen. No, those are not typos. Owen set up standards for how to run a prisoner of war camp. (Standards that later became norms in something called the Geneva Convention.) Those norms included allowing the prisoners to maintain their rank structure and chain of command in the camp. Ensuring prisoners had enough to eat. Allowing them to write home and read books. In fact, this became well known during the Civil War because of the deplorable condition of most prison camps. So well known, that when Owen was later leading a regiment in the war and was captured, the Confederate General thanked him and released Owen and his regiment to return home “on parole.”

The Confederate veterans continued to recognize how special Owen as they heard horror stories about other camps. In 1913, they commissioned and paid for the statue. It was then given to the state of Indiana. It is the only statue of a Union soldier directly commissioned by Confederate veterans. And they did it for his “courtesy and kindness.” That is why it matters. That is the lesson they wanted taught.

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Are there other reasons to honor Owen? Sure. He was the first President of Purdue University. He was a very influential geologist. He was an abolitionist. He and his family were major leaders in Indiana history throughout the 1800s. But that isn’t why they did it. Read the plaque. READ. THE. PLAQUE. Even the Owen bust is cherry-picked history. The Confederates were not commissioning a memorial to an abolitionist. I wonder if they even knew that? If they had, would they have done it?

Which leads us to today’s topic. Statues of Confederate leaders. Why do we have them? It’s not like they were put up during the war. As mentioned before, statues come later. They weren’t even erected right after the war in most cases. Most of the contentious ones today were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. The height of segregation, lynching, voter suppression, and Jim Crow era power. Erected by white governments and white-controlled communities intent on cementing a sense of white power. Statues are also symbols of power. That’s why we make them larger than life.

So people were told, look up at these great powerful leaders! Look up at these cherry-picked historical moments! Look at our attempt to preserve slavery! And a solid reminder to African Americans as to where they belonged in the community (or didn’t belong as the case may be) and that “the South will rise again.” A reminder that African Americans were once owned by white people who would die to defend their right to own them. It’s not like the Southerners were erecting statues to Abraham Lincoln. Or statues of General Lee reading to children. They were being intentional about who they wanted people to look up to and how they wanted them to be seen.

And when a community decides that it no longer wants to look up at a statue and see that civics lesson, they can and should take it down. Putting a new plaque on it to change the meaning doesn’t work when you have spent decades using it as a tool to teach another lesson. Remember all those scenes of people tearing down Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq? Remember how we all laughed and cheered? They didn’t want that lesson anymore.

I’d love to see a park created for old statues. I’d love to see just row after row of statues and monuments in a park on the outskirts of town. One that we could take kids to and ask questions like – why is this here now? How has our culture changed over time? How has our community values changed? That would make for some excellent civics lessons.

Taking down statues doesn’t change history. Taking down statues says these are no longer the people from history who we want to look up to. These are no longer the people who we put on a pedestal. These are no longer the people we want our children to grow up to emulate. Statues are civics lessons, not history lessons. History will still be there in the books. We can still read about those people. We can even learn about why we took the statue down or moved to someplace else. Yes, we could also surround it with “opposing statues” but is putting Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglas next to a bunch of Confederate Generals really the same? (Or the first black professional tennis player….looking at you there Richmond). Unless we put Ulysses S. Grant on a horse headed directly at General Lee we are still teaching civics not history (and that wouldn’t be a very accurate history lesson anyway.)

 

The White House: America’s new reality tv show

Regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump, I will give him credit for consistently doing one thing that he is really good at doing. He grabs headlines. And he’s managed to be a top story (if not THE top story) in every major news outlet around the country since he took office. And even many other countries.

The White House has become America’s new favorite reality tv show.

You’re fired!

And you’re fired!

I didn’t do that.

Well maybe I did but it didn’t mean anything.

Maybe I said it did at the time.

You only know because someone leaked it! We have leaks!

Ok, maybe I said it!

But you weren’t supposed to write about it!

Look at Crooked Hillary!

Remember how bad Obama was!

You’re fired!

I don’t know if that makes America “great again” or not but we do seem to have become the leading source of the world’s entertainment.

I would love it if someone could go back and compare Trump’s first six-months in office with Obama’s and see who made more front page news. Who signed more executive orders. Even who tweeted more. (Sorry, I love data.)

There are still so many unfilled positions in the government but Trump can’t seem to fill them since he spends all his time shuffling his main staff around.

I’m willing to bet that if you worked for Trump and had that much turn over and lack of productivity on your staff (remember all those promises he hasn’t filled yet…….) he would have fired himself long ago.

Hands down, my favorite moment in this reality show was last week when he said he said he had consulted with “my Generals and military experts” on transgender troops.* Apparently “his” Generals and experts are not the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs…..you know….our Generals and military experts. Like most things, Trump has his own apparently.Our Generals and military experts seemed blindsided by it. I can only imagine the reaction Mattis had to this.

But Trump seems consistently pleased with himself. No matter what 24 hours news station he turns to, he is the top headline. And anytime he isn’t, he just takes to twitter and jumps right back up there.

We are only half way through Season 1. Three more seasons to go.

*Even the relatively conservative RAND corporation has said the the benefits of allowing people who are transgender to serve out weighs any additional accommodation issues. Oh, and you know, it’s the right fucking thing to do.

Why does free speech only matter on college campuses?

I’m not dumb. I’ve seen the news. I realize that college campuses are a hotbed of free speech issues right now. And the backlash has primarily been directed at conservative speakers. Hence every Republican led state government is looking at some sort of “campus free speech” bill. But that is part of my point I think.

The “shout down,” “physical disruption,” and “mass intimidation” tactics that liberal students are using against conservative speakers are the very tactics many of them learned from the conservatives. Head over to your local Planned Parenthood and see how the religious zealots are handling things there.

Despite the focus on campus free speech issues there have been many more protests, counter-protests, and acts of violence related to off-campus free speech issues. But now, conservative state legislatures are suddenly worried – only because they see themselves as the victims – about campus free speech. When the crazy preacher guy is screaming at their daughters for being “sluts” for wearing shorts to class and gets shouted down by fellow students, they don’t seem to care.

What really set me off was an article about the Wisconsin legislature who wants to impose state mandated “sentencing” for those found guilty of violating free speech. Second offense gets you suspended and third gets you expelled. Yet there is no other law or campus code that has such a thing. Men found guilty of rape don’t get such a thing. Fraternities that cause the deaths of their members from hazing, drinking, and cover-ups don’t get such a thing. Let that sink in. Conservative law makers care more about not getting shouted down and harassed than they do about campus sexual assault or fraternity deaths.

The “free exchange of ideas” is a fundamental bedrock of higher education. But so is campus safety. If you are going to impose state mandated sentences, do it for all crimes and code violations. But then your rich white kids you send to those schools and join those privileged fraternities might face consequences…..better to just aim at the liberals and hope that your kids education doesn’t turn them into one of them.

 

Update: Nikki Haley, form South Carolina Governor and now Ambassador to the UN was heckled at the New York Pride parade. The woman who once defended the gay marriage ban was shocked she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Maybe we will soon outlaw create free speech laws for parades as well.

…a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die.

“I know he had an object and it was dark, and he was pulling it out with his right hand. And as he was pulling it out I, a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die.”

Those are the words of a scared man. A man who is explaining why he shot another man. The words of a police officer who shot a man. A man he pulled over for his taillight being out. A black man who was out driving with his family. A black man who then did what he was supposed to do and told the officer he had a gun permit and had a gun in the car. Seconds later the officer shot him because the officer thought he was gonna die.

If you haven’t watch the police dash cam footage of the Philando Castile shooting, you should. White people, black people, red people, blue people. Everyone should watch it. It’s scary. Not because of the violence and death of Castile, but in how quickly the officer goes from a friendly tone saying “hey you got a light out” to fearing for his life because Castile tells him that he is legally armed. His fear seems to rocket up because it turns out he pulled over an armed black man. (Note that he reaches for his gun the moment Castile mentions being armed.)

It seems that many officers fear for their life upon meeting someone else that is armed, particularly if that person is of color. We are considerably less concerned with armed white men who blatantly use the threat of violence to get what they want (you do remember Y’all Qaeda and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff right?). We are willing to give them some space and “respect their rights.” But a black man clearly does not get the same right because an armed black man inspires fear in people including many police officers. Even if he is just out for a drive with his family and was stopped as a courtesy about his brake lights.

I’ve grown up around guns my whole life. I’m a former NRA member (I gave up on them about the same time George H.W. Bush gave back his lifetime membership.) Rule number one that I was taught (by cops!) was that you should always let an officer know that you are legally armed. Clearly, this only goes for white folks. But to be honest, now I’m a bit worried too.

I have known a bunch of cops in different agencies and types of places throughout my life including now. Most of them are really good people. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that they have become more and more sacred. More and more convinced that they have to shoot first or they won’t make it home. More of an “us or them” mentality. When talking about even the most mundane situations, they switch to language I associate with war in foreign countries even when they aren’t veterans.

I have yet to figure out what has changed in our culture in the last 20 years that has made our officers so scared. The 1980s cop movies were Police Academy, Beverly Hills Cop, and Dirty Harry. And CHiPs and Hill Street Blues were on tv. Then suddenly we had Colors. But the 1990s had lone cop movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. And NYPD Blue was on tv. But then back to the Colors-esque genre of Training Day, End of Watch, The Departed, etc. Even the tv shows about cops now days reflect this change with mass shootouts and over the top adrenaline in every show. Some of this reflected a growing population of heavily armed drug gangs, particularly in urban environments but the societal impact was much wider.

My anecdotal-based hypothesis is that we are attracting a different type of person to being in law enforcement today and cultivating a different mindset among our officers. We used to attract people who were interested in solving and preventing crime first and foremost. People who lived in and were vested in their community. People who saw policing as a mental exercise to help their community. Now, many of the newer officers seem to be primarily interested in just being a bad ass, wanting respect “for the badge,” and constantly seeking that adrenaline rush of confrontation. Therefore, I hear older officers lament how the newer ones don’t bother with the non-adrenaline stuff like paperwork, cold cases, and non-violent crime. (And the officers who do those things are looked down on.)

Maybe both of these types were always there. Maybe in the past, law enforcement did a better job of self-regulation to control for these things. But most of the questionable shootings done by officers today seem to come from this newer generation of officers. I’ve not floated this theory among my law enforcement friends. But when I talk to that older generation about the younger ones, I see the often silent acknowledgement that things have changed even if they can’t put their finger on it.

How do we change this? How do we reverse this trend as a society? There is no one solution. Part of it is internal to the law enforcement community. Another part of it is on us. I think law enforcement officers need a wider breadth of experience before becoming law enforcement. They need more time with the general public, outside their own comfort bubble. More time spent around people who are different from them – socially, economically, culturally, racially, etc.

One system already in place to do this is higher education. We could actually require college degrees for law enforcement. A 2010 study from Police Quarterly found that officers with a college education are less likely to resort to use of force compared to those without a degree. Nationally, the rate of officers with a degree is very low. Stats vary widely but I’ve not see any above 40%. This isn’t new. In the 1960s, the federal government studies of law enforcement were recommending bachelor’s degrees.

I also think we need to change the system. Taking 2-3 years for someone to go from job application to officer on patrol is a lot of time. During that time, we need to find ways to build in this cross-cultural experience. They need to work in the community and get to know people. We also need to diversify our police officers as much as possible and building in programs that support applicants from underrepresented groups in the population.

Lastly, “I felt threatened” can’t remain as a blanket defense for police officers in a court of law. It isn’t considered justifiable for the military or those working overseas, so why do we allow it as a justification for police officers in the US. It isn’t even a universal justification for non-police officers despite some notable cases like Trayvon Martin (where again, his biggest threat was being a black male.)

In order to reduce their fear, we need to get rid of the “us and them” mentality both among police officers and among underrepresented groups. They need to come from the community. They need to understand the community. They need to be part of the community. Then maybe getting pulled over for a brake light being out and mentioning you are a legal gun owner won’t seem like a threat to an officers life.

 

 

Shouting people down is not the same as free speech

I have watched it play out on campus after campus this past year. And it has begun to creep into off-campus protests and events as well including local government meetings and civic events. Somewhere along the way, we have confused shouting people down with free speech. When it is rather the opposite. It is suppression. I am specifically talking about the idea that free speech means being allowed to stand in someone’s face and scream at them or disrupt and shut down an event.

Let me set a ground rule before I start. I don’t believe all ideas are equally valid. I don’t even think all ideas are worth giving air time to or listening too. However, all people, have a right to their own ideas. They have a right to gather together and discuss their ideas with like minded people. And to a certain extent, the government should not be involved in suppressing those rights. In fact, this is the very thing the has built progressive America into what it is today. I have an even bigger concern when the legislatures start weighing in with free speech bills and legislation that are clearly punitive to one side or idea.

The majority of the context I am speaking about is with higher education. Let me begin by telling you a secret. [whispers] There are conservative students, faculty, and staff in higher education. And that’s okay. A certain vocal minority within the left has convinced themselves that higher education, particularly large, public, liberal arts colleges, are bubbles of pure untouched left wing thinkers whose only limitation is the moderately left leaning administration.

Then when some small conservative group (or any group with an idea they find questionable) gets together – regardless of cause – they immediately want to hound them, suppress them, shout them down, and drive them from campus. This is not freedom of speech nor the free exchange of ideas. This is mob mentality, intimidation, and suppression. This is not what we claim our institutions value.

Three years ago, at my nearby college, the largest campus religious group invited a nationally known anti-GLBT speaker. The speaker is a strong advocate of being able to “pray the gay away”. Almost no one noticed. This year, that same group, has noticeably limited their advertisements about who they are inviting and has actually started employing security for their meetings. The largest. campus. religious. group.

This sort of “majority rules” “mob-intimidation mentality” that forces people to think and act like the majority wants them to act is dangerous – be it left, right, up, or down. And the truth is that it isn’t really a majority. It is another minority (for now). But it is a minority to whom the largely left-of-center campus is sympathetic. And as such, few seem to perceive the danger in this and many are willing to tolerate it. Though few are around to actually watch when dozens of shouting people surround one or two lone people and scream them down. The intimidation and fear is real and intentional. But afterwards and beforehand, the crowd wants to label it “free speech.”

I worry about this as the military has previously been a target of visceral free speech. The Martin Niemöller statement of “First they came for the socialists….” sticks in my head. So now, me, a social liberal, religious progressive, and social justice advocate, has to say we’re going too far. (Maybe it’s not “too far,” maybe it is just the wrong direction?)

I was proud of our local college when they did not let an invited speaker get suppressed by those who proudly boasted of their intent to disrupt the event and shut it down. Even though some students, faculty, and locals made it cost a fortune and made it get ugly. Yes, I found myself being proud that we let a conservative speaker with some ideas that resound of racism and bias come speak. That part hurts I admit. I’m not proud that we invited him but I’m proud that our students who invited him were able to hear him. I was not proud that some in our community’s plan to protest it was to shut it down. Too often the majority has ruled by intimidation and suppression. We can’t allow this to be the way our emerging progressive majority acts if want to claim to be inclusive.

Some observations on attraction, love, and complications

I have seen a lot of relationships over the years. In this case I’m talking about those intimate relationships we voluntarily enter into with a significant other, a spouse, a partner, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it. As someone interested in the behavior of humans, I’ve often thought of mine and others relationships as an active research lab to examine what makes relationships work and what doesn’t. Here is a preliminary report.

The way I see it, attraction generally falls into three categories. There is physical attraction. Sometimes we call this lust or “chemistry.” You have probably had folks tell you about this. They said something like “She was hot so I decided to talk to her.” Or “I saw this guy run by without his shirt on and it made me want to take up running.” My personal favorite “I just wanted to stare into those eyes all night…..and into the morning.” All of these denote little to no interaction with the person that tells anything about the person’s personality, intelligence, or your ability to connect with them. It is purely physical.

The second kind of attraction is emotional. If you’ve been through something traumatic, dramatic, or growth experience with a person, you may feel a bond with them. This bond is similar to friends who we’ve been through a lot of stuff with or family, but maybe in ways that differ because this person likely volunteered for this emotional journey with you. It’s the reason you still sort of smile when you think about your first crush or first significant other. The longer your are with someone, the more likely you are to have these experiences (especially growth).

It’s a bit of an extreme example but a friend, we’ll call her Jane, was dating someone who we will call Steve, and her mom died suddenly. It was very traumatic for her but Steve was there for her. For many years, Jane’s main building block of their relationship was that Steve was “there for her” when her mom died. Yet, neither was particularly physically attracted to one another or intellectually attracted so the relationship eventually fell apart. She still brings up what a “nice guy” Steve was and wonders if she should have stayed with him despite the lack of the other two attractions.

The third kind of attraction is intellectual. This doesn’t mean you have to be PhDs in the same field. What this means is that you have respect for each others intellectual pursuits and interests. These may be hobbies or work related. This doesn’t mean that you “endure” your significant other rambling on about some concept you only vaguely understand or “live with” the fact that they have a car/boat/plane/pet that consumes a bunch of their time. It means you actively try to learn a little about it. You ask questions. You engage them and encourage them because seeing them get excited about it makes you both happy. This also means people often end their relationships when they don’t see their partner as having any compatible intellectual attractions. “Oh you want to stay home all day playing video games instead of getting a job. Well then, I’m leaving.”

All of these attractions have to be a two way street. If they are only one-way, that won’t work either. You both have to have some amount of all three for the other person. (i.e. you can’t value the video games/car/boat/plane/pet more than the relationship for very long and be successful.)

Love is often confused with any one of these attractions. The one most of us can relate to is physical attraction. At some point, there was likely some Hollywood star, musician, or maybe someone you actually knew who you were attracted to. And then at some point, you saw an interview with them or read something about them, and you were like “ewww” maybe I don’t like them as much now. Because you didn’t actually know them well enough to have intellectual attraction or have experiences with them for emotional attraction, it was purely one dimensional. You said you were “in love” with them but actually you were “in lust” with them.

Love is a combination of all three of these kinds of attraction. They don’t have to be equal parts but there has to be some amount of each. If you hate your significant other’s passions/interests then you will always hate it when they engage in them. Eventually you will see their passions as competition to your relationship. If you have no emotional connection, you will seek that with friends who will be seen as competition to the relationship. And lastly, if you aren’t physically attracted to one another, then the you have a friendship but not a relationship. None of these are mutually exclusive bubbles. They overlap with one another in many ways but each seems to be an essential element that must be present.

But we are human. So there are complications. Love is also something that develops, matures, and grows over time through these three things and through experience and time together. Love needs a relationship. Love and relationships are overlapping bubbles but not the same. (Relationships – of all kinds – take maintenance. Which is a post for another time.) Many people get trapped in a fantasy where they build up these things as existing more than they actually did in some past or future relationship. But without the intimacy (not sexual but personal) of spending time together, growing together, experiencing each other together, it is just fantasy.

Another complication is that we can tell when we don’t have these things but we can’t objectively measure love or attraction. We can’t realistically compare these things in a non-partisan way. As Jane once said, “How can I compare my [physical attraction] for George Clooney with my [emotional attraction] to my boyfriend? I want both.” Yes Jane, you do want both. In fact, you want three things. Godspeed on finding all of them in one person.